UC San Diego Medical Center, Hillcrest, Trauma Center

Alarming Proportions

Fighting Child Obesity

Much of America’s youth are out of shape and sedentary, having replaced playtime with screen time. Roughly one in three is overweight or obese. Since shedding pounds is extremely difficult, the most effective strategies are on the prevention side. Both diet and exercise are keys to good health—and a growing body of evidence suggests that health habits are formed early in life.

Research Funding

An abnormal response to food cues may lead to obesity. The brain becomes wired to seek—and expect—greater rewards from food, which leads to unhealthful overeating. At UC San Diego School of Medicine’s Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research (CHEAR), a multidisciplinary team is focused on translating effective therapies and treatments from other domains and applying them to unhealthy eating behaviors. Attentional bias programs, which train a person to ignore specific cues or triggers, have been used effectively to treat anxiety and substance abuse. Training kids to pay less attention to food might help them eat less.

In a novel pilot study, CHEAR founder and School of Medicine professor of pediatrics and psychiatry Kerri Boutelle and her colleagues used a single session of attention modification to decrease overeating in obese children. Assuming attentional bias training is effective in larger studies, it could be provided in the form of a computer game that decreases the sensitivity to food cues.

The brains of obese children literally light up differently when sugar is tasted, according to recent School of Medicine-led research. The study, which scanned the brains of children as young as eight years old, is a wake-up call for early prevention. This elevated sense of “food reward”—which involves being motivated by food and deriving a good feeling from it—could mean some children have brain circuitries that predispose them to crave more sugar throughout life. Some children may even be born with a hypersensitivity to food rewards.

Another School of Medicine study suggests that parents of obese children often do not recognize the potentially serious health consequences of childhood weight gain or the importance of daily physical activity. More than half of parents either ranked their obese children as “very healthy,” or did not view their children’s weight as a health concern. Participants were also more interested in helping their child eat a healthy diet than in encouraging a pediatrician-recommended hour of daily physical activity.

Parents with children fourteen or older were much less likely to succeed in persuading their child to exercise on a regular basis. Poverty may also play a role. Those with annual incomes of under $40,000 were less likely to be engaged in ensuring their child got regular exercise.